How to Succeed in Life Without Really Trying

Stop trying. Seriously. Stop. It’s freeing. Once you let go of the constant anxiety, the constant force of society weighing down on you, it really is freeing.

This pandemic has given me one amazing thing (and I know I’m speaking from an incredibly privileged perspective)—time. It has given me the time to step back and reflect on many aspects of my life. Among them, it has given me the time to really think about what it means to be successful. And though I’m not a big fan of moral, ethical, or any other type of relativism (I’d much rather there be one overarching Truth that we all can attain) I know now that we each have to define success for ourselves. 

For me, in this moment, success means doing exactly what I’m doing—gazing at my beautiful children as one reads in the window seat, the other works on an arty math project. My progeny, the actual fruits of my labor, being alive and partaking in what it means to be human, using the tools at their disposal to attempt to figure out the world and their place in it.

My success, I have come to find, is the ability to have these moments. It’s scary, though, because it is fleeting. I have absolutely nothing to hold onto, nothing to show for my success. And when my children have grown, what will I have? I am always struck by the words of a horrible ex-boyfriend who was trying to find any excuse he could not to take the next step with our relationship after dating for more than a year. I told him I want to be with him, settle down, have kids. He told me that was no way to live a life. If I raised kids, what would I have to do after they were gone? My worth in the world would be over. Then what would I do with my life?

However much I know my ex-boyfriend’s ill-conceived ideas of what it means to live a meaningful life were his own problem, and even though I am lucky enough to have found the meaningful relationship with the significant other that I need in my life, I am still haunted by those words. Isn’t funny how one thing another person says to you can have such a long-lasting effect? Kind of gets me wondering whether and how every damn thing or person that has ever had an effect on me has influenced the choices I’ve made and the person I’ve become.

Lately, during this imposed time of reflection and self-care, I’ve been looking back on my life trying to figure out if I’m really the person I have turned out to be. My whole life I’ve been trained to be something that other people are supposed to look at, admire. I’ve been trained that my purpose is to somehow give others pleasure by amazing them with my smarts, my talents, my skills, and my looks. I was also trained as a child that my purpose was to give people pleasure by other means. And here is where things get sensitive.

Sometime between birth and my 10th birthday, I was repeatedly sexually abused by a trusted adult. Without going into detail, I learned a few things. Things I should not have known at that age. It wasn’t until my own daughter reached the age I was when these things were happening that I even realized what happened to me was wrong. I couldn’t imagine my daughter being in the same situation I was in. The thought of it made me livid. From there, all sorts of introspection took place that led me to the knowledge that choices I made, from the careers I’ve chosen to how I participated in relationships with the opposite sex, were all influenced by my childhood circumstances.

So now I’m left wondering, who am I? Like, really, who is it that I am? And the answer is… I don’t know. All I know is that I have moments. Moments of perfection in the chaos that is life these days—COVID, climate change, Trump, agh! And I realize I want more of the perfect moments and less of the chaos.

I have to convince myself, though, that chasing the moments of perfection is its own reward. I may not be left with anything to show for them. No big house. No fancy car. No retirement plan. No enduring monuments to my existence…

Here’s where I get stuck. Between the reality and expectations that exist out there and the searching within my own heart, there is this tension—so tight it’s almost at its point of maximum strain—preventing me from fully experiencing either one. I am stuck in the nether, defining success by every moment that passes. In this moment, I am successful. In this moment, I am not.

Perhaps that’s the key. Perhaps we should allow ourselves to change our personal definition of success when we need to. Perhaps we can throw our 5-year plans and our long-term plans out the window. Perhaps we should plan for right now—this moment. Forget about what everyone else says. Forget about what we’re ‘supposed’ to be, and just be.

Was it Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result? That’s truly how I have felt as I awakened each morning and attempted to be what others expected of me. I’m done. Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and be what I expect of me. What is that? I don’t know. I’ll define that successful moment when I experience it.

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